18 October 2015

Wiener Wit & Wisdom

Early in 2012 I took up a short-term contract in Abu Dhabi.  My work in Singapore seemed to be stagnating, and I felt in need of a change, so the opportunity to spend time doing something I loved in a city I had never previously visited was an opportunity not to be missed.  We duly gave up our lovely Singapore home, called in the movers and asked them put all our belongings in storage until such time as we decided where we were going to settle next.  The Abu Dhabi work was wonderful but, all too soon, the contract came to an end and my wife decided we should spend the next few years in the UK for the sake of our daughter, then aged four, who needed to get to know her British roots and relatives; my mother and one of my sisters had died while my daughter was still a baby, and we didn’t want the rest of the relatives to peg out before she had got a chance to know them.  So we stayed with my father in the UK while I looked around for something to do and, very soon, an opportunity came up at the University of St Andrews to cover maternity leave.  So, before the year was out, we found ourselves living in one of Scotland’s most beautiful regions.  With a definite new address established, I contacted our Singapore movers and asked them to arrange to ship our belongings to the UK.  And that was when things began to unravel.

The movers contacted a shipping agent who arranged for two containers to be set aside into which our belongings would be loaded prior to shipment to the UK.  At that point I received an urgent call from the shippers saying the movers had packed the containers so badly that they would not survive a journey by sea and I would need to arrange for the containers to be emptied and re-packed.  I instructed the shippers to go ahead and do this, but somewhere along the line this instruction got missed, and the containers were loaded on to the ship still as they were.  A few months down the line I had a message from a cargo handling agent in the ominously named town of Gravesend at the mouth of the Thames telling me that the two containers had arrived in the port and been off-loaded from the ship, but it was “obvious that the contents have been damaged in transit". 

Things began to go completely mad at this point.  I was not allowed to go to the secure area of the docks to inspect the damage for myself, and nobody there was in a position to open the containers and report on their condition, although they were able to tell me that the contents of one had been “destroyed completely” and the other “damaged beyond repair” (I can only assume some kind of X-ray discovered this, although I’m not sure how the two descriptions differ).  If I wanted to take possession of my belongings, I would need to pay for both containers to be removed from the docks, at which point they would be checked by customs and I would then need to arrange for a truck to transport the two containers by road the 1000kms to Scotland.  Requests and pleas for some more tangible proof of the extent of the damage yielded nothing, and I was faced with the stark choice of paying thousands of pounds to find a shed in Scotland where I could have two containers dumped while I sifted through useless shattered fragments for which I would have likely paid a very hefty customs duty, or to instruct the cargo agents to destroy them before passing through the customs shed and into the UK.  

It turned into months of sheer hell, deciding whether to deliberately destroy everything we possessed, or risk opening the containers and finding everything in pieces and then having to add insult to injury by arranging for its disposal.  In the end, after my extended prevaricating, the decision was forced on me by a short phone call.  “We will dispose of these containers tomorrow unless you take possession of them today”. I had no choice but to order the destruction of everything that I had ever possessed; clothes, furniture, photographs, certificates, a safe full of insurance and share certificates, pension and trust fund documents and personal papers charting a lifetime's labours, childhood mementoes, family mementoes, my daughter’s, my wife's and my own birth certificates, our marriage certificate, health records, my own academic records and certificates, my precious piano, my computers, my audio equipment, my vast recorded music collection, my priceless collection of organ music and scores, and a huge library amassed over the course of some 50 years.  To say it was heartbreaking is an understatement, and not a day goes by when I don’t agonise over what I have lost.  The financial loss has been catastrophic, and I doubt I shall ever recover (I have long since resigned myself to sleeping on the streets of London and selling The Big Issue), but more serious has been the psychological effect on me.  I admit that I have thought about suicide more than once when the memory of what has gone – a lifetime of memories and achievements – hits home.  That I still have my lovely wife and gorgeous daughter is certainly enormous compensation; but it doesn’t drive away those dark thoughts about what I have lost which have me waking up most nights in a cold sweat.

This morning, for example, round about 3am I suddenly woke with an urge to look up a reference in one of my lost books.  It was a fascinating biography of Schumann, bought in a second hand bookshop in a seedy suburb of Brisbane many years ago, and so tattered and torn that I never did know who the author was or, indeed, when it had been published or by whom.  Yet it set out in vivid detail the full horror of Schumann’s mental decline and described how his personal problems affected his music.  The psychological damage my loss has caused me prevents me from trying to replace any of my lost goods (what’s the point when I might well lose it all again?), but how I wish I could find this book once more, for it was one of the most compelling portraits of the composer I know and I urgently would like to remind myself what it had to say about the Cello Concerto.  That I should wake up in the God-forsaken moments of a dark Sunday morning thinking of Schumann and his Cello Concerto is not entirely surprising since, over the course of Saturday, I heard the work not once, not twice, but several times.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is in town and, luckily for Conservatory students, several members of the orchestra came over yesterday morning to give masterclasses.  The place was buzzing with bassoonists, clarinettists, flautists, cellists and violists, while others, like me, flitted from room to room picking up the wonderful wit and wisdom of the Wiener wisemen.  It was a tremendously exciting experience, witnessing such intense and valuable teaching to students who lapped up every word, even when the teacher was less than sympathetic to shortcomings.  Every one of these Viennese musicians was in class of their own, but my personal favourite was orchestra’s Principal Cello, Tamás Varga, who pulled no punches in his masterly comments to those students who submitted themselves to his masterful scrutiny.  As with his colleagues, he showed an immense knowledge of the repertory, and I would hope all the students went away with a feeling that they all had a great deal more to learn beyond the considerable emphasis on technique all the masters highlighted.  But they also showed a real understanding of the music – not just a knowledge of it – and nobody moreso than Varga.  Working through a movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto with the excellent student cellist, Yu Ssu-Yang, Varga seemed almost to slip into the shoes of Schumann, not so much saying as recreating that tense and unhappy man in the advanced stages of mental delusion, and conveying more vividly than a hundred words, what the Concerto was saying.  “It seems so happy, but it’s not.  It’s uncomfortable.  It’s uneasy.  There's something wrong”, and so saying, he squirmed in his chair and looked pained in a manner which let you know exactly what was in the heart of this music. 

Wisely, another excellent student cellist, Oliver Randall Scott, had not submitted himself to Varga’s teachings because, that very afternoon, he was performing the Schumann Concerto in the semi-finals of the Conservatory Concerto Competition.  Any words of guidance from a Viennese master would only unsettle any player if, hours before such an important performance, interpretative ideas and technical revisions were questioned and pulled apart.  Scott’s was an admirable performance, beautifully poised and impressively secure.  Technically it flowed effortlessly and it certainly presented the music in an authoritative way.  But even as he was playing, images of Varga squirming in his chair, trying to brush aside images of mental instability but not succeeding, flooded into my mind and I realised what was missing.  Scott, for all his admirable qualities, hadn’t really immersed himself in the psychological depths of the music; it was a lovely performance, a fluent and expressive performance, but not a particularly perceptive one.  And perhaps neither should it have been.  To get into the mind of a man in terminal decline as a consequence of contracting syphilis (an incurable disease at the time), who had seen all his youthful dreams shattered, his ambitions thwarted and his personal life unravelling before his eyes, is more than we should expect of any fresh-faced young conservatory student. 


Yet, as the Viennese masters so vividly revealed, if anyone is to attempt to perform some of the great works in the repertory, there is not just the requirements to have an absolute mastery of the musical text and a finely-honed, constantly evolving technique, but a real understand of the psychology of the composer at the time he wrote it.  Examination students who glibly tell their diploma examiners in their pitiful programme notes that “Schumann was a Romantic composer”, clearly have no idea what Schumann really was, deep down.  And they need it, if they are going to perform his music with any degree of conviction.  I don’t recommend contracting syphilis, nor even losing everything you have ever possessed, but to understand the pain of psychological suffering is something every cellist (pianist, singer, etc.) must do if they are ever going really to play late Schumann.

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